U.S. News

Civil lawsuit may be only recourse for Ferguson teen's family

(Reuters) - Without a criminal indictment, Michael Brown’s family might have no better legal recourse than to sue local authorities for the African-American teenager’s fatal shooting by a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer.

After a St. Louis County grand jury decided on Monday not to indict officer Darren Wilson - and given the high bar to a federal criminal prosecution - the family may follow the path of other high-profile U.S. police shootings and file a civil lawsuit for wrongful death or civil rights violations.

In some such cases, the authorities who oversee police departments agree to settle for millions of dollars.

“There might be a lot of political forces that would be at work that would give the Brown family a chance at a quick settlement,” said New York lawyer and former prosecutor Paul Callan.

The burden of proof in a U.S. civil suit is lower than in a criminal case. A plaintiff needs to show liability only by the preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt.

In recent years, New York City agreed to pay $7.15 million to the family and friends of Sean Bell; Chicago agreed to a $4.1 million settlement with the family of Flint Farmer; and a California transit agency said it would pay $2.8 million to the family of Oscar Grant, according to news reports at the time.

All three men were shot to death by police officers in cases that drew widespread attention but not murder convictions.

Rodney King sued Los Angeles after his videotaped 1991 beating by police, and a jury awarded him $3.8 million.

“There are so few cases in which officers are criminally charged, but plenty of instances in which very successful civil rights cases are brought,” said Joanna Schwartz, a UCLA law professor.


The U.S. Department of Justice could also bring federal civil rights charges against Wilson, although former prosecutors have said such charges are unlikely. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder indicated late on Monday that a decision in the federal investigation of Wilson could come soon, saying the inquiry was at a “mature” stage.

To win a criminal conviction on civil rights charges, federal prosecutors would need to prove that Wilson intended to violate Brown’s rights when he shot and killed Brown, 18, on Aug. 9.

“The bar is very high,” said Jennifer Laurin, a University of Texas law professor. She added, though, that federal prosecutors do not always see things the way local prosecutors do.

Supporters of the officer say he acted lawfully to defend himself during a confrontation, and on Monday, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said a grand jury had decided there was not probable cause to bring a state charge such as murder or manslaughter.

Daryl Parks, a lawyer for the Brown family, said on CNN on Tuesday that the family was focused on the Justice Department investigation, not getting money from the city, but would explore legal options including a wrongful death lawsuit. “That will have its day,” he said.

Ferguson Assistant City Manager Pam Hylton declined to comment on any possible suit.

If the family brought a civil lawsuit, a jury would essentially be asked to determine whether Wilson acted “reasonably” when he shot Brown, Schwartz said.

And although the grand jury appears to have accepted Wilson’s self-defense claims, that does not necessarily mean a trial jury would do so in a civil lawsuit, said Peter Joy, a law professor and director of the criminal justice clinic at Washington University in St. Louis.


The deadline to file a lawsuit would be two to five years, depending on the type of claim and whether it was under state or federal law, said St. Louis lawyer Stephen Ryals.

Brown’s family members could sue Wilson and city officials on behalf of either themselves, Brown’s estate, or both.

The suit could seek compensation for economic damages such as lost future income and funeral and burial expenses, as well as punitive damages, according to similar suits in past cases.

The family could sue based on wrongful death or deprivation of civil rights, said Callan, who represented the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson in a wrongful death lawsuit against former athlete O.J. Simpson. After a jury acquitted Simpson of murder, a civil jury in 1997 found him liable for the deaths of his former wife and her friend Ronald Goldman and ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million in damages to the victims’ families.

A claim on either theory would be difficult to win, Callan said, because of conflicting witness accounts and physical evidence Wilson acted in self-defense.

Reporting by David Ingram and Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Howard Goller